Effective Communication despite Language Barriers

You are the proud home owner of a nice home in a suburban neighborhood in Pleasantville, USA. You are pleased to have new neighbors. You noticed there are a husband, a wife, and two toddler sons.  You have also noticed that they speak to each other in a foreign language which is unfamiliar to you. What if they do not speak any English? You want to welcome them to the neighborhood, but are unsure of how to do so because of the language barrier.

In this day and age in the United States, Americans need to become educated in cultural diversity. People who were once classified as minorities are no longer considered as such because they now make up significant percentages of the population. Moreover, there are forms of communication that are universal and require no knowledge of  languages or cultural backgrounds.

The sharing of food is a universal act of kindness that is understood by people of any culture. Facial expressions are universal, as well. A smile indicates good will and pleasure. Pantomimes can be understood in any language. If you have ever played the game of Charades, you know that you can communicate well by “acting” through pantomime.

So how do you go about getting to know your new neighbors?  Baking a cake and taking it next door to your new neighbors is a great way to share with them that you are pleased to meet them. When one or all of them come to the door, have a big smile on your face, and gently extend your hands with your cake to them. After they accept the cake, in a pleasant well-modulated voice, tell them your name and point to you self. Speak somewhat slower than normally, but not loudly as they are not deaf! If you have brought a spouse or children, introduce each one of them. Tell them you live next door and point to your house. They will respond to you and you will be able to ascertain if they speak any English  If they can speak some English, this will be advantageous along with combined facial and body gestures.

Do not touch them. Do not try to shake hands with them as this is taboo in some cultures. Do not worry about invading their personal space (the distance people need in conversation to feel comfortable), as Americans require more personal space than most cultures. Many cultures do not require much personal space and they will converse with another nearly nose-to-nose. Americans feel threatened if someone invades their personal space and will involuntarily step backwards to increase the distance.

Do not go into their house unless they invite you. It is usually best if your first meeting is on more neutral ground such as their front porch or yard.  

Much to your delight you find that your new neighbors speak some English, but their words are heavily accented and you find it difficult to understand them. Be patient and kind. How well do you speak any other language? There are many Americans who do not speak English well themselves, much less have a command of another language! The more you try to communicate with your new neighbor, the easier the communication will become.

It is usually the women of the two households that get to know each other initially. After the initial introduction, invite your neighbor to your home for a cup of tea. Sitting together at a table, while sharing food and drink, is a universal gesture of good will and sure to “break the ice”  While always maintaining a pleasant facial expression ,use inflexion with your words (expression), enunciate words clearly and continue to use gestures and point to objects. Often, people who speak other languages will reciprocate by telling you the word in their language for a particular article or expression.  Try to say it. Communication should be a reciprocal experience.  It is to your advantage to learn a few foreign words. You will find that many ideas can be expressed and shared with limited knowledge of each other’s language.

If you have a garden in your yard, take her to see it. Gardening is universal in all cultures and countries. If you have no garden but have some potted flowers and plants, this will work just as well in learning how to communicate with her. She will be eager to learn any words you can teach her.

Offer to take her shopping. Shopping for food and clothes transcends all language barriers. We all must eat and be clothed. The more time you spend with her, the easier you will understand her accented English words and the easier she will learn to understand you. She may always retain her accent, but, with time, it becomes less noticeable.

In conclusion, remember that the greatest communicators have the greatest listening skills. Listen carefully and observer gestures and facial expressions. Be patient and kind.  Keep a pleasant facial expression, In a short time, you will find that language does not need to be a barrier at all in your communications with your new neighbor who  has limited knowledge of your language.